Tag Archives: Torture

Viginti quattuor

Michael Gerson confuses sophistical pseudo-skeptical hand wringing with actual moral deliberation.    

The Justice Department memos raise a question: Can coercive interrogation ever be justified? Few Americans would object to the slapping of a terrorist during questioning, for example, if this yielded important intelligence. The coercion would be minimal; the goal of saving lives, overriding. Few Americans, on the other hand, would support pressuring a terrorist by torturing his child. Such a heinous act could not be justified in pursuit of an inherently uncertain outcome — securing information that may or may not prevent greater loss of life.

So the use of coercion in interrogations lies on a continuum of ethics and risk. Lines must somehow be drawn on the slippery slope — the difficult task that Justice Department lawyers were given. On which side of the line should waterboarding lie? It is the hardest case. The practice remains deeply troubling to me, and it was discontinued by the CIA in 2003 after being used on three terrorists. But some members of Congress, it is now apparent, knew of the technique and funded it. The decision was not easy or obvious for them. It was just as difficult for intelligence and Justice Department officials in the months of uncertainty following Sept. 11.

And, skipping a paragraph:

Some have dismissed this argument as "moral relativism" or the assertion that the ends justify the means. But this betrays a misunderstanding of ethics itself. The most difficult moral decisions in government are required when two moral goods come into conflict. Most of us believe in the dignity of the human person, a principle that covers even those who commit grave evils. Most of us believe in the responsibility of government to protect the innocent from death and harm. Government officials pursue both moral goods in a complicated world. In retrospect, they may sometimes get the balance wrong. But national security decisions are not made in retrospect.

I suspect that most Americans, in considering these matters, would come to certain conclusions: There should be a broad presumption against harsh interrogations by our government. An atmosphere of permission can result in discrediting crimes such as Abu Ghraib. But perhaps in the most extreme cases — when the threat of a terrorist attack is clear and serious — American officials may need to employ harsh questioning, while protecting terrorists from permanent injury. In broad outlines, this approach is consistent with the Justice Department memos.

Moral deliberation would seem at least to involve knowing what is minimally acceptable conduct.  Luckily, sometimes what is acceptable is just obvious, there is, for instance, no right time and right place and right woman and right way to commit adultery, so says the Stagirite at least (Nicomachean Ethics II.6, 1107a8-12).  On that analogy, water boarding, and various other techniques considered torture by the US military and the FBI (to name a few relevant organizations) is torture.  Redefining the words (now it's "harsh interrogation") and feigning skepticism (on which side should water torture, ahem, waterboarding lie?) about their meaning and application because of worries about a TV show scenario shocks the conscience.

Boiling of the blood around the heart

There is a fairly simple argument for exploring the possibility of criminal trials against those who justified, ordered and performed torture: torture is illegal.  David Broder, however, seems very confused about the nature of legality.  He writes:

But now Obama is being lobbied by politicians and voters who want something more — the humiliation and/or punishment of those responsible for the policies of the past. They are looking for individual scalps — or, at least, careers and reputations.

Their argument is that without identifying and punishing the perpetrators, there can be no accountability — and therefore no deterrent lesson for future administrations. It is a plausible-sounding rationale, but it cloaks an unworthy desire for vengeance.

Holy crap is that silly.  Vengeance is irrelevant to whether or not someone has broken laws.  Let's say, for the sake of argument, people have broken the law.  The people who trusted them with their vote (and those who didn't vote for them, but implicitly "trusted" them anyway) have a right to be rather narked (I don't know how to spell that Britishism properly) about their violating that trust.  There being angry about it, however, is an independent, mostly irrelevant, fact about their character used ad hominemly to distract the reader from drawing the correct conclusion.

It's about as irrelevant as the following:

The memos on torture represented a deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy decision, made in the proper places — the White House, the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department — by the proper officials.

One administration later, a different group of individuals occupying the same offices has — thankfully — made the opposite decision. Do they now go back and investigate or indict their predecessors?

That way, inevitably, lies endless political warfare. It would set the precedent for turning all future policy disagreements into political or criminal vendettas. That way lies untold bitterness — and injustice.

The question is not whether the torture decision was a policy decision–we all know that it was–the question is whether that policy decision was legal.  Just because the right people sat in a room and debated it doesn't mean it's just politics.  It only makes the crime (should there be determined to be one) worse.    

Can’t spare a square

Paul Krugman is perplexed, and rightly so I'd say, over the claim (made by some in the Obama administration) that we cannot investigate (and therefore prosecute) torture because we have too much on our plate right now–an economy in the tank, health care to reform, energy policies to write, etc.  Krugman says:

What about the argument that investigating the Bush administration’s abuses will impede efforts to deal with the crises of today? Even if that were true — even if truth and justice came at a high price — that would arguably be a price we must pay: laws aren’t supposed to be enforced only when convenient. But is there any real reason to believe that the nation would pay a high price for accountability?

For example, would investigating the crimes of the Bush era really divert time and energy needed elsewhere? Let’s be concrete: whose time and energy are we talking about?

Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to rescue the economy. Peter Orszag, the budget director, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to reform health care. Steven Chu, the energy secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to limit climate change. Even the president needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be involved. All he would have to do is let the Justice Department do its job — which he’s supposed to do in any case — and not get in the way of any Congressional investigations.

I don’t know about you, but I think America is capable of uncovering the truth and enforcing the law even while it goes about its other business.

Seems right to me.  But I think the real problem lies with the media.  I don't think they'd be able to sustain focus on the torture investigations (which I earnestly hope for) and the pooping habits of Obama's dog.  I don't think they can spare the people.

All Cretans are liars

A former Bush speechwriter attempts to put our minds at ease about torture.  He tells us that tortured prisoners do not lie, because the lying deceitful terrorists (whom we should never believe) have told us under torture that they don't:

Critics claim that enhanced techniques do not produce good intelligence because people will say anything to get the techniques to stop. But the memos note that, "as Abu Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, 'brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship." In other words, the terrorists are called by their faith to resist as far as they can — and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know. This is because of their belief that "Islam will ultimately dominate the world and that this victory is inevitable." The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely. 

Besides, it's their religious duty not to lie under torture–and we ought to take that at face value.

Cordon Bleu

There is an argument about torture floating around the punditsphere, Richard Cohen's variation goes something like this: After 9/11, an event unlike any other in the history of any civilized nation (not true), Americans strongly supported President Bush in his aggressive pursuit of the terrorist evildoers.  Some leading American legal minds, such as Jonathan Alter and Alan Dershowitz (I'm not making this up) openly mused about using torture of one form or another on certain terrorist suspects.  In addition, it is logically possible that someone tell the truth while under torture–a fact no one can deny (or has denied, by the way, because it's not the point).  On top of this, the people in their love of the TV show "24" and their high approval rating of Bush wanted torture, so it would therefore be wrong to prosecute or punish the people who waterboarded or otherwise tortured terrorist suspects or just suspects. 

I don't think I'm being uncharitable.  Here's his conclusion:

That, though, was the other country called the Past. In the country called the Present, certain people are demanding that the torturers and their enablers be dragged across the time border and brought to justice. There are many practical difficulties involved, but the impetus is understandable: A nation that once posed to the world as lawful and civil turned out to be brutish and indifferent to international law. We tortured. So says the incoming attorney general, Eric Holder. We tortured. So says the person in charge of deciding such matters at Guantanamo. That question has been answered. Now comes another: What are we going to do about it?

President Obama's inclination, it seems, is to not do anything much. "I don't believe anybody is above the law," he recently said. "On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards."

This is a nifty formulation that ignores reality; to look forward, you need to know where you've been. In other words, if we do not find out precisely how our government came to waterboard at least three suspects and abuse others, we will not know how to ensure that the future doesn't wind up looking much like the past.

At the same time, we have to be respectful of those who were in that Sept. 11 frame of mind, who thought they were saving lives — and maybe were — and who, in any case, were doing what the nation and its leaders wanted. It is imperative that our intelligence agents not have to fear that a sincere effort will result in their being hauled before some congressional committee or a grand jury. We want the finest people in these jobs — not time-stampers who take no chances.

The best suggestion for how to proceed comes from David Cole of Georgetown Law School. Writing in the Jan. 15 New York Review of Books, he proposed that either the president or Congress appoint a blue-ribbon commission, arm it with subpoena power, and turn it loose to find out what went wrong, what (if anything) went right and to report not only to Congress but to us. We were the ones, remember, who just wanted to be kept safe. So, it is important, as well as fair, not to punish those who did what we wanted done — back when we lived, scared to death, in a place called the Past.

I think this argument blows for at least three reasons.  First, not everyone wanted these things to be done.  Second, the feeling of support (however great) for patently illegal, immoral, and impractical activities such as torture does not make them any less illegal, immoral, or impractical.  Third, whether or not the will of the people had clearly expressed the specialness of the circumstances in their choice of TV show or Alan Dershowitz (how do you measure that anyway?), there still remain the more fundamental expressions of the will of the people–the constitution, our history of prosecuting people for waterboarding, the treaties and conventions practiced by our team–not to mention the more recent (and contradictory) expressions of our government's view on torture–such as, the arguments used against Saddam Hussein at his trial and before the execution of the war in Iraq, the arguments against the Taliban, and so forth–that stand as evidence that we do not and did not consider torture a legitimate legal practice.  Finally, a fourth reason, people in positions of authority ought to know better than to erect legal sophistries to justify practices which are obviously illegal, immoral and impractical.  They are elected and sworn to uphold the constitution for this purpose.


The op-ed page at the New York Times is pretty bad, what with Dowd, Kristol and Friedman, but the op-ed page at the Washington Post is worse.  To end the year on a negative note, here's Ruth Marcus on why an Obama administration should not pursue criminal charges against Bush administration officials who broke the law.  The whole thing amounts to a classic ignoratio elenchi–none of Marcus's arguments prove or really even support the conclusion that criminal prosecution against Bush administration officials should not be pursued.  My comements in brackets.

First, criminal prosecution isn't the only or necessarily the most effective mechanism for deterrence. To the extent that they weigh the potential penalties for their actions, government officials worry as much about dealing with career-ruining internal investigations or being hauled before congressional committees. Criminal prosecution and conviction requires such a high level of proof of conscious wrongdoing that the likelihood of those other punishments is much greater. [deterrence isn't the only point of criminal prosecution].

Second, the looming threat of criminal sanctions did not do much to deter the actions of Bush administration officials. "The Terror Presidency," former Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith's account of the legal battles within the administration over torture and wiretapping, is replete with accounts of how officials proceeded despite their omnipresent concerns about legal jeopardy.

"In my two years in the government, I witnessed top officials and bureaucrats in the White House and throughout the administration openly worrying that investigators acting with the benefit of hindsight in a different political environment would impose criminal penalties on heat-of-battle judgment calls," Goldsmith writes. [Goldsmith's characterization only underscores the dubious legality of the actions of administration officials]

Third, punishment is not the only way to prevent wrongdoing. If someone is caught breaking into your house, by all means, press charges. But you might also want to consider installing an alarm system or buying stronger locks. Responsible congressional oversight, an essential tool for checking executive branch excesses, was lacking for much of the Bush administration. [This is the same as one.  It's also just irrelevant.]

Fourth, there is a cost to pursuing criminal charges. As appalling as waterboarding is, for example, it was pursued with the analysis and approval of lawyers who concluded, however wrongly, that it did not rise to the level of torture. If government officials cannot safely rely on legal advice, they will err on the side of excessive timidity. [All criminal defendants can find lawyers who can argue however erroneously that they're client did nothing illegal–this does not make it legal]

Fifth, focusing governmental energy on uncovering and punishing the actions of the past will inevitably drain energy and political capital from the new administration. It would be a better use of the administration's time to figure out how to close Guantanamo and deal with the remaining prisoners. [these are not mutually exclusive]

In a State of the Union address in 2003, Bush uttered the following words about Saddam:

The dictator who is assembling the world's most dangerous weapons has already used them on whole villages — leaving thousands of his own citizens dead, blind, or disfigured. Iraqi refugees tell us how forced confessions are obtained — by torturing children while their parents are made to watch. International human rights groups have catalogued other methods used in the torture chambers of Iraq: electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues, and rape. If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning. (Applause.) 

Saddam's leaving thousands of Iraqis dead and obtaining false confessions through torture were lawlessness on a scale worthy of military invasion at the cost of thousands of lives of killed and wounded soldiers and civilians.  One would think that such things might be worthy of criminal investigation, and, perhaps, prosecution.

The truth will set you free

What conclusion would you think would follow from the following (courtesy of Sadly, No!)?

Dark deeds have been conducted in the name of the United States government in recent years: the gruesome, late-night circus at Abu Ghraib, the beating to death of captives in Afghanistan, and the officially sanctioned waterboarding and brutalization of high-value Qaeda prisoners. Now demands are growing for senior administration officials to be held accountable and punished. Congressional liberals, human-rights groups and other activists are urging a criminal investigation into high-level "war crimes," including the Bush administration's approval of interrogation methods considered by many to be torture.

I would think: we are a nation of laws.  The accused will no doubt have better legal representation than their alleged victims (someone said something like that once–who was it?), but they'll still have to answer for their deeds.  That's what I would say.  Here's what the author said:

It's a bad idea. In fact, President George W. Bush ought to pardon any official from cabinet secretary on down who might plausibly face prosecution for interrogation methods approved by administration lawyers. (It would be unseemly for Bush to pardon Vice President Dick Cheney or himself, but the next president wouldn't allow them to be prosecuted anyway—galling as that may be to critics.) The reason for pardons is simple: what this country needs most is a full and true accounting of what took place. The incoming president should convene a truth commission, with subpoena power, to explore every possible misdeed and derive lessons from it. But this should not be a criminal investigation, which would only force officials to hire lawyers and batten down the hatches.

Couldn't this be said about any criminal act?  What the family needs is a full accounting of what happened–outside of the Rashomon-like perspectivism of a criminal trial–so let's grant the accused immunity and  just hear about how he went about his crimes.

Of course that's nonsense not worthy of the most motivated high school debate student.  People will continue to lie to protect their reputations–even when nothing is at stake.  Criminal trials don't really produce truth anyway, they produce, maybe sometimes, justice.


Water Bored

Senator Kit Bond of Missouri on waterboarding:

GWEN IFILL: I just would like to — but do you think that waterboarding, as I described it, constitutes torture?

SEN. KIT BOND: There are different ways of doing it. It's like swimming, freestyle, backstroke. The waterboarding could be used almost to define some of the techniques that our trainees are put through, but that's beside the point. It's not being used.

There are some who say that, in extreme circumstances, if there is threat of an imminent major attack on the United States, it might be used, but I certainly would not favor it in any circumstance…

Is it like freestyle and backstroke swimming because water is involved?  Or is it like those things because there are different ways of doing it?  This is more than just a perverse water analogy.  It's a complete non sequitur–the question asks whether water boarding as Ifill described it is torture, but Senator Bond replies to a different question–and then suggests his reply is besides the point.  Maybe we could put this another way.

GI: Do you eat herring, Sen. B?

Sen B. There are lots of kinds of herring–pickled, creamed, smoked.  But the different kinds of herring has nothing to do with this.  My store doesn't carry herring.

Maybe there are circumstances in which herring could be sold at my store, but I wouldn't favor that. 

With or Without Yoo

Two interesting quotations from Ruth Marcus’s Washington Post column–One pro John Yoo, tortured torture memo writer, one contra.  The first one, from Columbia University law Professor Scott Horton, addresses someone (Elder) who does not find Yoo’s legal work grounds for discipline or revocation of his tenure at Berkeley.  He says that Elder

"is appropriately concerned about freedom of expression for his
faculty. But he should be much more concerned about the message that
all of this sends to his students. Lawyers who act on the public stage
can have an enormous impact on their society and the world around them.
. . . Does Dean Edley really imagine that their work is subject to no
principle of accountability because they are mere drones dispensing
legal analysis

There’s a wide gulf between "not punishable in this instance by the University" and "subject to no principle of accountability."  Horton sets up a false dichotomy–accountable or not.

On the pro-Yoo side:

The most useful analogy I’ve read on this subject comes from Princeton
professor Deborah Pearlstein, who asked what Berkeley would do if a
molecular biology professor "had written a medical opinion while in
government employ disclaiming the truth of evolution," and continued to
dispute the theory of evolution once he resumed teaching.

a human rights lawyer, found Yoo’s memo "blatantly, embarrassingly
wrong under the law," but she conceded that legal conclusions lack the
hard certainty of scientific truth. Yoo should no more be removed from
a teaching job than a Supreme Court justice who writes a despicable
opinion — upholding slavery, allowing separate but equal facilities,
permitting the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II —
should be impeached.

I’m confused by the analogy in the first paragraph.  If that’s the case, then indeed Yoo ought to be fired for not having competence in his subject matter.  Academic freedom ought not be a cover for incompetence.  But I doubt he would have gotten that far anyway. 

The second paragraph rings odd.  And it hardly makes the point that Yoo ought to be protected from firing.  Any Supreme Court judge who argues for slavery ought to be impeached–now (and probably back then as well).  Even though legal opinions lack the "hard certainty" of scientific truth (whatever that means), it doesn’t mean that some legal opinions are simply beyond the pale.  

By most accounts–even friendly ones–Yoo’s opinions were beyond the pale.  The fact is, however, that was a different job.  This seems to me to be the key difference that’s being overlooked here.  Berkeley was dumb enough to hire him and give him tenure.  They ought to be ashamed.  But it’s too late now. 

Of course, if he broke the law and is found to have committed war crimes, then indeed, he ought to be fired.  But that’s a matter for, er, the law.  


Whatsa Matta Yoo?

A Justice Deparment lawyer, John Yoo (now a law professor at Berkeley–that’s liberal academia for you), put together a legal memo in 2003 that amounted to a justification of the President’s right to torture people in his capacity as Commander in Chief in time of war.  Here’s a critical passage in that argument:

As we have made clear in other opinions involving the war against al Qaeda, the Nation’s right to self-defense has been triggered by the events of September 11. If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al Qaeda terrorist network. In that case, we believe that he could argue that the executive branch’s constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions. This national and international version of the right to self-defense could supplement and bolster the government defendant’s individual right.

One reason you torture someone is to discover information (whether that information is any good is another matter).  You might also torture someone for fun or for punishment.  But the relevant sense of torture for this memo is the former–torture for information about the future.  Yoo argues that if you put "information discovery" under the broader rubric of self-defense, then you can torture anyone at any time, so long as you are attempting to "prevent future attacks" (which would probably characterize any interrogation after all).

That seems to be a rather vague standard, as it could be invoked to justify any instance of interrogation torture.  But the weird thing here is that Yoo would construe this national right of self-defense (which applies I would guess to war) as applicable to individual torturers.  Any particular defendant who torturers a suspect for information, you see, is merely engaging in a completely justifiable act of personal self-defense.